In an effort to boost revenue at Santa Anita Park, the racetrack's operating company plans to make it one of the Southland's biggest outdoor venues for concerts and festivals.
Earlier this month, the Arcadia City Council unanimously decided to allow music and entertainment events at the 320-acre facility on 30 days over the next year as part of a pilot program.
"There will be no Aerosmith or Gun N' Roses. No rock concerts are allowed under this ordinance," said Clifford C. Goodrich, vice president of Santa Anita Operating Co.
But neighbors of Santa Anita are not so sure about the motives of the track owners. Homeowners, who have complained they have suffered through previous occasional music festivals, say they believe it is the first move toward a full-blown concert venue like Irvine Meadows or the precursor to the construction of an arena like the Great Western Forum.
"We feel they are testing the waters for things to come," said Jim Fox, a homeowner who lives within a furlong of the track.
Santa Anita officials have already arranged "Festival Santa Anita," a Latino music and cultural event, on Labor Day weekend on the track's infield, and an Irish festival for next year.
"We're concentrating on getting concerts and festivals with a family orientation, most with multi-stages rather than one big one," said Goodrich, seeking to reassure nearby homeowners.
Santa Anita Operating Co. has been searching for ways to generate extra revenue and utilize its huge grassy infield and 22,000-space parking lot on non-race days since attendance began declining a few years ago with the introduction of satellite wagering.
Santa Anita officials pitched the concept of a state-of-the-art domed music center in the parking lot last October to the City Council, and even hired an architect to come up with ideas, Fox recalled. Track officials said it was only a concept and that no deals have been made.
After news of Santa Anita's latest plans filtered into the community in June, a tide of opposition grew.
Dozens of residents from nearby streets appeared at a public hearing to express fears over concert noise, traffic congestion and intoxicated fans collapsing in their front yards.
"If you're Santa Anita, you're not going to bother with a venture like this unless long term you plan for more than 30 days with some popular entertainment," said Ben Serar, a resident of an area north of the track known as The Gardens.
"I enjoy hearing the roar of the crowd as the horses come down to the wire. But when they've held music events there in the past, it's like it's in my back yard," Fox said. Music programs in the past were limited to nonprofit events in the infield.
Homeowners expressed similar fears at a special meeting held in council chambers to inform them about upcoming events.
Their concerns about the future of Santa Anita Park have been exacerbated by the death of the man who was considered the heart and soul of Santa Anita, Robert P. Strub, chairman of the board and son of the track's founder, Charles H. Strub.
With Strub's death, residents say, the track is likely to take on more of a corporate identity.
Goodrich said the homeowners' fears are unfounded. He maintained that the ordinance keeps a tight rein on all events and that it is specifically designed for one year so the council can put an end to the arrangement if it works out badly.
Track officials said they volunteered the ban on rock concerts.
Councilman Dennis Lojeski agrees.
"These restrictions are so tough they really screw them down on everything."
Santa Anita will be allowed to hold events, from rodeos to multi-stage music festivals, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The track or event promoter must obtain a permit for each event, pay for a city technician each time to monitor sound levels, deposit $2,000 to cover costs and could face a $1,000 fine or misdemeanor prosecution for any noise violations.
But some residents say they fear the city will not challenge the racetrack's actions because it provides substantial revenue to the city.
City officials estimate the new events will generate $168,000 in admissions taxes for the cash-strapped city.
The Santa Anita Operating Co. and Newport Beach-based Santa Anita Realty Enterprises Inc., one of the state's largest real estate trusts, make up the publicly traded Santa Anita Cos. The companies own the racetrack, half of Arcadia's Santa Anita Fashion Park and a large medical office building. The three holdings provided $3.4 million in taxes to Arcadia last year.